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  • Writer's pictureRothermel Foundation

Sea Level Change in Eastern North Carolina: Past, Present, and Predicted

October 16, 2022

Dr. Stanley Riggs

Sea Level Change in Eastern North Carolina: Past, Present, and Predicted

Bio: Prof. Riggs is a Distinguished Research Professor of geology at ECU, having earned a BA degree from Beloit College, an MS from Dartmouth College, and a Ph.D. from the University of Montana. He has served on many NC, national and international boards and most recently on the Science Panel of the NC Coastal Resources Commission which had as its objective a report on coastal management in the face of rising sea level. Prof. Riggs is the director of a recently established non-profit scientific and educational organization called North Carolina-Land of Water (NC LOW). Abstract: During the last earth warm period from about 125,000 to 50,000 years ago, sea level in eastern NC was up to 25 feet above present. Then as the earth cooled, sea level fell to about 410 feet below present during the last glacial maximum from about 30,000 to 15,000 years ago. Sea level has been rising to Its present level since. During his 53 year tenure at ECU, Prof. Riggs, a coastal and marine geologist, has focused his research on the estuarine and barrier island systems of eastern NC and the adjacent continental shelf, particularly the dynamic processes affecting changes and the impact these changes have on the coastline and coastal communities today and into the near future. Prof. Riggs was a member of a NC State Science Panel charged to examine the recent rate of sea level change and place the rate in predictive 30 and 100 year time periods. Compared with geologic time scales the magnitude of predicted change through 100 years is small and varies spatially south to north, with one prediction of about 1 foot of sea-level rise by 2045 and about 3.25 feet by 2100. These predictions are crucial for the future of coastal NC because substantial portions of at least 8 counties are only 1 to 3 feet above present sea-level. And, since the early 1700s sea level has been documented rising along coastal North Carolina by about 1 foot/century and the rate is now increasing, marked by increasing incidences of coastal flooding. In the course of his research, Prof. Riggs has been able to relate the change of colonial Carolina capitals to the closing of inlets through the barrier islands caused by the interactive dynamics of hurricane winds, waves, currents and rising sea level. These forces combine to move sand along shore, off shore and across the barrier leading to the opening and closing of inlets, and in other ways modifying the coastline. Prof. Riggs believes that living near the interface of land and water in eastern NC places limits upon use and development if the goal is to maintain a natural or near natural setting with minimal cost to property, lives and livelihood. As he posits, there will always be a coastal Carolina, just not where it is today. For a better understanding of how our estuarine and ocean coasts are sculpted through time, and how one NC town is responding and adjusting to the predicted future sea level rise, join us for the lecture.

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